Hiatus, nostalgia, TV
I haven’t published anything here for a while because I started reading Demon Copperhead, the new book from fave author Barbara Kingsolver, and it has been taking forever. I am enjoying the voice of the protagonist and the high quality of her descriptive writing and somewhat quirky scene-setting, but the combination of the length of the book and the depressing quality of the narrative finally got to me at about 83 percent, and I set it aside to take a quick refreshment break.
I re-read two books by Jenny Colgan—Meet Me at the Cupcake Café, and The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris—for their winning combination of positivity, romance, and recipes, and enjoyed them both. My plan was to go back to Kingsolver today, but instead I found myself picking up Dying Fall, the latest Bill Slider mystery by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, which has been in my pile for months. I will get back to Demon Copperhead at some point, but the mood isn’t yet right.
Meanwhile, Netflix made me happy this weekend, having come out with season one of Lockwood & Co., adapted, partially written, and directed by Joe Cornish, and based on the young adult paranormal mystery series by author Jonathan Stroud. This has been a favorite series of mine since I read book #1 with my middle school book club and eagerly perused all the rest as they emerged from his brain onto the page (there are five books and a short story in it).
The series is set in a parallel world where Britain has been ruled for 50 years by “the Problem”—evil ghosts that roam freely, but can only be dealt with by children and teenagers young enough to be in touch with their perceptive gifts. Adults can be harmed by them but can’t see or even sense them, while the youth still see, hear, and sense their presence and fight them by discovering their “source” (the place or object to which they are attached) and either securing or destroying it.
The mythology seems to have evolved at least partially from faerie, vampire, and werewolf lore: The main weapons are iron chains, silver containers, running water, salt bombs, lavender, and longswords! The ghost-hunting teens are most of them employees operating under the supervision of corporate, adult-run agencies, but Lockwood & Co. is independent of adult supervision. It’s a startup existing on the fringes, run by two teenage boys—Anthony Lockwood, the putative boss and mastermind, skilled sword fighter and ingenious planner, and George Karim, the brainy researcher who provides background for their cases from the city’s archives. The two have advertised for and just recently acquired a girl colleague, Lucy Carlyle, who is new to London and technically unlicensed, but more psychically gifted than anyone they have ever met. This renegade trio is determined not just to operate on their own but to outdo the agency blokes in all their endeavors, so they take risks no adult at the corporations (or at DEPRAC, the Department of Psychical Research and Control) would sanction, in order to gain both notoriety and clients.
Cornish and his colleagues have nicely captured both the flavor of the overwrought atmosphere of beleaguered London and the perilous camaraderie of the principal characters—Lockwood, George, and Lucy—in their series. Season one covers the events from books #1 (The Screaming Staircase) and #2 (The Whispering Skull), so one assumes there will be at least one and perhaps two more seasons, if viewers make it popular enough for renewal. I certainly hope they do! But in case that doesn’t happen (or even if it does), the books are out there, and well worth your attention (and I don’t just mean middle-schoolers!).
Light but clever
Looking for a time-out from some of the more intense stories I have been reading lately, I picked up science fiction author John Scalzi’s latest stand-alone, The Kaiju Preservation Society, for some light relief, and it was just the break I needed.
Protagonist Jamie Gray, a mid-level executive of the food delivery service füd-müd (you do get the significance of the umlauts, right?), is laid off during the Covid 19 pandemic with the option to take up a “career” as a delivery driver for that same company—which he does, because there’s nothing else on offer in the closed-door economy. He is saved from this mundane and less-than-lucrative existence when he makes multiple deliveries to a former college classmate, Tom, who solicits Jamie to join his team to work at an “animal rights organization” that is targeted towards “large animals.”
Tom has all the big-brained doctors of various subjects that he needs; what he doesn’t have, due to a last-minute dropout, is someone to do the grunt work of “lifting things,” which Jamie decides is a step up from pizza guy. Tom is a little cagey about the precise details, and Jamie will have to make a six-month commitment, but it still sounds better than what he has going on. So Jamie accepts Tom’s offer, only to discover that the endangered animal actually exists on an Earth that is an alternate, parallel reality to this one, and his job is to help the team keep the animals safely on their side of the border.
The Kaiju are the creatures who served as models for the movie monster Godzilla, and they’re not just big and hangry, they also happen to carry the capacity for nuclear explosions in their guts. Naturally, there are people in our Earth reality who are wanting to exploit this, and it’s the team’s mandate to protect “the universe’s largest and most dangerous panda.”
“KPS is not, and I say this with absolutely no slight intended, a brooding symphony of a novel. It’s a pop song. It’s meant to be light and catchy, with three minutes of hooks and choruses for you to sing along with, and then you’re done and you go on with your day, hopefully with a smile on your face.”— Scalzi’s Author’s Note.
This book is every bit as goofy as it sounds, and the suspension of disbelief is gigantic, but it’s also witty, clever, and surprisingly relevant, with great world-building, a diverse cast, some fun science talk, and a lot of entertaining banter as a counterpoint to the crapfest that was the height of the pandemic. Finally, it was refreshing, in our current context, to have the rich and entitled tool of a bad guy get his comeuppance in several ways (minor spoiler). One Goodreads reviewer described this book as “Guardians of the Galaxy meets Jurassic Park,” and that’s a pretty solid vision of this cathartic distraction.
It’s not my favorite stand-alone by Scalzi (that would have to be The Android’s Dream, which is one of the consistently most entertaining books ever), but it’s definitely a pop treat.
As I noted in a previous post, I had been plagued by the memory of a book I had read some years ago that should have been on my dystopian/post-apocalyptic list, or maybe in historical fiction, but wasn’t. That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and after I finally dredged up the memory of the title, I discovered she had, since I read it back in the ’90s, written two sequels. I finally got around to revisiting Benson’s creation this week; my initial intention was simply to read the sequels, but I felt the need to refresh my memory of the first book, so I did a reread first, which changed my plans.
I finished the book this morning, and went to the library website to obtain the two sequels for my Kindle (neither was available); but after then browsing through some reviews on Goodreads and further pondering what I had just read based on some observations I found there, I decided the story, while intriguing in many ways, wasn’t something I wanted to pursue beyond the first volume.
Although I write this review blog and can be analytical about a book, I think I have confessed before that sometimes I am not a particularly discriminating reader. Certain things will turn me off immediately—repetitious word usage, bad grammar, lousy world-building, clichéd characterizations, wince-worthy love matches—but I am all too prone to be swept up by a story that has compelling elements without fully recognizing its flaws until I take a minute, and that was the case here.
I did love the set-up, which was a future/past double narrative of the Black Death in 1348 England and a post-“Outbreak” world in the future (which in the 1990s when it was written was actually 2005) after an antibiotic-resistant disease has decimated the population of the United States and done lesser but still severe damage to England.
The protagonist in the 1300s narrative is a Jewish doctor named Alejandro Canches, who is masquerading as a Spanish Christian after an unfortunate event necessitates he flee his home and conceal his identity. He becomes caught up in the priority of the Catholic Church to preserve the heads of state in Europe from the virulent plague that is ravaging every country, and is sent by the Pope across the English Channel from Avignon to the court of Edward III to impose draconian measures of quarantine and hopefully keep the large and contentious royal family of Plantagenets alive and healthy.
The narrative in the near-future section is carried by American Janie Crowe, a former surgeon who has lost her husband, daughter, and career to the recent pandemic and is starting over by attempting to qualify as a medical archaeologist. She travels to London with her assistant, Caroline, to take a variety of soil samples she will use in her doctoral dissertation project. The world in England post-pandemic is a closely monitored one with bureaucracy impeding every move, particularly those of foreign nationals, and Biocops on watch for the slightest infraction of health protocols. In the course of her work, Janie will unwittingly dig up an artifact that has the potential to release an ancient plague for which there is no modern cure.
The story-telling is absorbing and keeps up a fairly brisk pace, but the editing left something to be desired in terms of anachronistic and repetitive language, plus some scenes that are unnecessarily drawn out with superfluous amounts of detail; it’s not exactly obvious that this is a first-time writer, but the narrative could definitely have been tighter. It was easy to invest in the personalities and individual quirks of the two main characters, but less easy to overlook some of the anomalies that take a good premise and make it slightly ridiculous as less-than-believable events transpire one after the other. And while introducing a romantic element into the 1300s part of the story worked nicely, the one in the near-future sections was just awkward.
The thing that bothered me the most—which is odd, because I am usually a fan of magical realism or mystical features—was the source of the remedy, the midwife Mother Sarah and her centuries-long legacy. We never really learn how she came to develop her healing knowledge, and the mysterious natural elements that conspire to conceal or reveal her presence remain likewise unexplained. I would have enjoyed all these details if they had been integrated into any kind of logical system but, as they are written, they are merely frivolous and unsatisfying window dressing that ultimately detract.
If you like this kind of story I wouldn’t tell you not to read it; there is much to enjoy here. But while the details of the past are more believable (and better written), the way the future tale plays out is hard to swallow and also kind of silly.
If you are looking for a better version of these events, even down to the past/future component, I recommend you seek out the award-winning Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, instead. That one I can unreservedly recommend! (And then follow it up with some or all of her other time travel fiction.)
As a huge fan of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, I can’t believe this book never came up on my radar until now! I think I might have heard of it before, but never clocked exactly what it was about, and its title doesn’t reveal much about the contents. Then when I read that it was about a traveling troupe of actors, I may also have discounted its appeal to me. But so many people mention it on “What Should I Read Next?” (a Facebook group) when asked for good end-of-the-world fiction that I put it on my “want to read” list and finally got around to it this week.
Although the seed of the book is a worldwide flu pandemic, we don’t really learn much about that flu, because it is so deadly that there is no time for doctors to ponder origin, discuss cases, analyze it to reveal symptoms, search for a cure, or produce a vaccine, as people have done during our own pandemic that is (hopefully) slowly winding down.
In this iteration, the flu arrives in New York City on a plane from Russia; within hours, everyone who was on the flight is dead, and within another day or so almost everyone who came into contact with those carriers is also dead or dying. Medical personnel inform their loved ones, who tell their friends, and there is a mass exodus out of the city, which ends as each exposed person is overcome and passes it in turn to the next. Other planes come into other cities from other countries, all of which were exposed to the flu prior to the United States, and soon, even for the immune or the lucky, there is nowhere to flee. The entire world has been infected and overwhelmed, and civilization rapidly comes to an end. Planes are grounded, trains and cars cease to run as fuel runs out or becomes stale, the failure of electricity takes down all forms of communication and creature comforts, and soon the one percent of the population left standing is isolated wherever they happened to end up, in a dark and silent world.
The story begins when an elderly actor experiences a heart attack while onstage playing King Lear, on the eve of the pandemic. Strange connections to this man—the paramedic-in-training who leaps to the stage to try to revive him, the little girl who plays one of Lear’s daughters, his first ex-wife, who is the author/artist of a strange set of apocalyptic graphic novels called Station Eleven, his best friend from boyhood, and his second ex-wife and son—are the characters who tell the story, which reaches from the actor’s distant past on an island off the coast of Canada to 15 years into the future in the territory surrounding the Great Lakes, after the pandemic has decimated the world. The vehicle for the story is a band of musicians and actors (including that child actor who played a daughter of Lear) who have teamed up to travel a small route from town to town around the shores of Lake Michigan, alternating musical concerts and productions of Shakespeare every other night to keep themselves fed and give them purpose. The thing that makes the story so involving is how all the initial characters, so tenuously connected by this one man, end up in associations of which they themselves are unaware, and in possession of artifacts of one another’s lives. What is nice about the story is that although a few of these connections are revealed, thus providing some closure between certain players, the story doesn’t wrap up with a bow, but ends leaving some ironies intact.
I loved how the story jumped from person to person and told their part of the story without pointing out the obvious connections, instead allowing the reader an “Ahah!” moment every once in a while. I loved the scene-setting descriptions of how the world has devolved, and how people respond to it depending on who they were and how old they were when the pandemic hit, and therefore what they remember. It seemed so realistic when parents would argue about whether they should continue to teach their children about the past with its internet, cell phones, and moon launches (or hey, ice cream and air conditioning!), or if there was little point in trying to explain such foreign concepts to those who would probably never experience them in this world that has returned to travel on foot, sleep cycles governed by the sun, and lives that are focused almost solely on survival. I loved the portrayals of lawlessness and violence set against the kindnesses and native courtesies preserved against all likelihood.
I love that I have discovered yet another post-apocalyptic story worthy of adding to my collection! And I am also excited because this book made me think of one that I read a long time ago but never remembered to log into my Goodreads list, and when I finally dredged up the author’s name from my sometimes spotty memory and went in search of the book, I discovered that after I read it, she wrote two sequels! That book was The Plague Tales, by Ann Benson, and my intention is to read the sequels (Burning Road, and The Physician’s Tale) just as soon as my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA is over and I am no longer keeping up with my students’ reading schedules. June, here I come!
Diversity and superheroes
I just finished reading two books of a planned trilogy by April Daniels. I would slot them as young adult although, in the area of superheroes, fandom seemingly crosses all borders, including that of age. But since the protagonist is 15 when book #1 opens, and comes with a lot of the issues teens encounter, labeling them YA is plausible, whether or not the author intended that.
Dreadnought (Nemesis #1) follows the adventures of Danny Tozer. When the book opens, Danny is Daniel, an unhappy teen girl trapped in a boy’s body, with parents who adamantly refuse to see her for who she is or even contemplate the possibility of a transgender future. A miracle is shortly to follow, however; while hanging out alone behind the mall, Danny ends up on-scene at the murder of Dreadnought, a powerful superhero, and as he dies he passes the “mantle” of his powers to Danny. What comes with those powers is a transformation so epic that Danny’s life will be forever changed—she is gifted with a girl’s body as part of her new identity. Although becoming a superhero ought to be the most amazing thing that happens to a person, it is the realization of her secret dream of manifesting as female that is the overwhelmingly joyous news.
But Dreadnought was taken down by a “black cape” named Utopia, who shouldn’t have had enough power to faze him, let alone kill him, and now Danielle has to figure out how that happened and foil Utopia in her grand plan for the destruction of humanity. And she will have to do so while confronting the prejudice and paranoia of her parents, whose dearest wish is to find a “cure” that will turn her back into “their son,” a disillusionment regarding her best friend, who turns out to be an objectifyer when Danny turns into a girl (hey, eyes up here, dude) and, of course, her fellow superheroes in New Port, some of whom also have a problem with Dreadnought suddenly being a 15-year-old petite blonde.
This is such a fresh, wonderful, fun, and yet serious discussion of transgender in the context of fiction! The author shares the identity of the underrepresented and marginalized group in question, and in this series, the authenticity shines through. There is something for everyone here: While those who enjoy the cool powers, the fight scenes, and the trope of conflict between good and evil so characteristic of superhero books can revel in those things, there is also a lot of all-too-mundane psychology tied up with the issues of misogyny, abuse, identity, gender vs. sexuality, you name it. In addition to the transgender nature of the protagonist, we have her lesbian love interest, a non-binary superhero colleague, multiple people of color, and a villainous trans-exclusionary “feminist.” But none of these (well, with the possible exception of Graywytch, who turns into kind of a cipher as the plot progresses) is a stereotype: Danny runs the gamut of emotions—brave, terrified, powerful, weak, utterly secure, and totally lacking in self-confidence. The side characters are equally well developed, especially those who are in her inner circle of supporters and colleagues. The world-building is thorough, and especially enjoyable is all the focus on “hypertech” inventions.
I enjoyed the first book a little bit more than the second, simply because I love a good origin story, and Dreadnought dealt much more with the emotions and challenges of a 15-year-old transgender girl who is suddenly in the spotlight as the heroine of the city and has to work through all her personal issues with family and friends while simultaneously maintaining a public image and fighting crime. Sovereign landed more heavily on the superhero role and focused less on the personal, although it almost made up for it with the relationship dynamics among the main characters, including a little romance. And the ongoing question of the wisdom of taking a survivor of childhood abuse with anger issues and encouraging them to beat up on people (well, admittedly bad guys, but still) is also a powerful theme.
Having read these two, I would have felt completely satisfied with a duology; but Daniels is writing a third book to wrap up the secondary plot of Nemesis, and I look forward to reading it. This is a solid recommendation for a positive and delightful treatment of diversity within a fictional shell, not to mention a dynamic story line and an enjoyable read! I would suggest this for teens 14 and up, plus anybody who enjoys a good superhero tale. To discover other diverse books, visit https://diversebooks.org/.
Well, the proclivity for the devouring of extensive series does wreak a little havoc with a regular reviewing schedule!
I continued reading Timothy Zahn’s Dragonback series through all six books and am finally back to report that it remains a charming and well wrought story arc that will appeal to lovers of science fiction, people who like a coming-of-age story, and those who are craving the adventure, hijinks, drama, and excitement of a “space opera.”
The parts are perfectly played by the humans—Jack and Alison—and the K’da—Draycos and, latterly, Taneem. The former are clever and wily, ingenious at dodging and weaving their way through a seemingly infinite number of challenges, yet also vulnerable and with the tendency to despair that young people who haven’t quite found their feet will fall into if left entirely to their own devices. But in this story, they are not—Jack has the poet/warrior K’da riding his back like a big golden dragon tattoo, and K’da is, in addition to being strong, resourceful and a heck of a song-writer, a stable, positive role model for Jack to emulate, in contrast to Jack’s Uncle Virgil, the good-hearted but self-serving conman who raised him.
Alison’s resources are a little more mysterious at first, and we’re never quite sure of either her motives or the identity of her allies as she and Jack meet and part during this complicated plot. While the only truly obvious bad guys are the sinister Vahlagua, operators of the Death ray and enemies of the K’da, there are a lot of other combatants in this field, emerging from the wealthy class, the government, from groups of mercenaries and land- and slave-holders, all of whose interests are somewhat aligned but none of whom can be trusted, and several of whom seem too familiar with Alison! Once she teams up with the innocent but fierce Taneem, however, Alison’s aspect begins to soften slightly, and the reader obtains glimpses of who they hope she will be in amongst all the trickery, as she and Jack draw closer.
The books are: Dragon and Thief, Dragon and Soldier, Dragon and Slave, Dragon and Herdsman, Dragon and Judge, and Dragon and Liberator, with Jack playing all those roles in his quest to save the K’da. Thus, in addition to the long-term goal there are many short-term ideas pursued as part of the solution, with Jack in turn learning how to be a mercenary, coping with capture and enslavement, shepherding some innocent bystanders while attempting to remain hidden from his foes, and acting as both arbiter and liberator.
The twists and turns that set up each book are beautifully structured to further exhibit both the evolution of the human characters and their strengthening bonds of empathy with their friends, mentors, and symbionts. The strategizing sessions amongst the characters are clever and lead seamlessly to the next adventure. And although the story occasionally bogs down just a little in the details of an individual episode, the momentum never fails to pick up again and carry the characters forward towards their goals. There are also plenty of exciting scenes of battle, both personal/physical and also using their weapons and ships in space to outmaneuver the conspiracy mustered against them.
Altogether, I have seldom read a more satisfying example of story-telling that will engage its intended readers. Librarians, booksellers, and parents, put this series on your list to especially recommend to your teens ages 12-16. (Add it to the books of Anthony Horowitz and D. J. MacHale as a great alternative for reluctant boy readers.) And fantasy lovers of any age, check it out when you want something clever, fun, and action-driven to read.
NOTE: Art is by https://kaenith.tumblr.com/ ©2017.
The book I chose to read this week was the perfect example of being led into genre mislabeling by certain aspects of content. The book is Dragon and Thief, by Timothy Zahn, part of the “Dragonback” series. Because of the presence of dragons, and also because of the series title (making it sound like people were riding on the backs of dragons), I assumed going in that this would be a fantasy. After all, dragons are mythical creatures, right? and their presence would probably indicate world-building that involves some kind of medieval setting?
I was dead wrong. The only thing I got right about this book was believing that it would be a solid addition to my list of books for middle school readers, and that I might possibly be fortunate enough to have discovered one that was particularly appealing to boys, who are more typically reluctant readers than are girls at that age.
Dragon notwithstanding, this is science fiction. The dragon is one of a race of poet/warriors (the K’da) who are symbiotic with other select species and need them in order to live. The dragons transform from three dimensions to two, and ride around on (and receive sustenance and life from) their hosts while giving the appearance of being a large and elaborate tattoo—so instead of people riding dragons, it’s the other way around. And all species involved in this book are space-faring, with much of the action taking place on ships and in spaceports and outposts on various planets.
There aren’t too many books with dragons that anyone would consider sci-fi; the dragons of Rachel Hartman, for instance, while able to shapeshift back and forth between their native shapes and human form, are set within a construct that is definitely medieval in nature, as are the conflicts explored in her books. Same with the dragons of Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Chris Paolini, Jasper Fforde, and, of course, Tolkien. Even Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, alternate history in which dragons are the steeds ridden by the soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, figure more as fantasy than anything else.
The only dragon books of which I’m aware whose author has attempted to claim science fiction status are those of Anne McCaffrey. Since these are telepathic fire-breathing dragons that bond for life with their riders, many have scoffed at McCaffrey’s claims. Her rationale for the premise is that mankind travelled to the planet Pern via rocket ships, only to discover that their new home was beset by deadly spores that traveled from a red planet to theirs in irregular cycles that lasted a decade or two every once in a while; they used their science to take the native fauna they called fire lizards (miniature dragons about the length of a forearm) and super-size them through selective breeding to wipe out the spores by breathing fire on them. (Her premise would be a lot more believable if she had also thought to use science to explain how these spores from the red star survive the unbearable heat of entry into the planetary system only to be destroyed by a simple toasty breath!)
Anyway, back to my middle school series. Zahn’s voice is perfect for his protagonist, who is a 14-year-old thief named Jack. Jack’s parents died when he was little, and his uncle Virgil, an interstellar conman, raised him to be an innocent-looking but precocious assistant for his various illegal exploits, so Jack has lots of talents like breaking and entering, computer program manipulation, and being a quick-thinking fast-talker. But his uncle died a little while back, leaving Jack alone except for the computer that runs Jack’s ship, upon which Uncle Virgil imposed his personality, so that “Uncle Virge” is still in some sense with Jack, imbued with the same sly, evasive, self-serving qualities that his human uncle possessed.
Uncle Virge is unhappy, therefore, when Jack decides to rescue and play host to Draycos, one of an advance team of K’da warriors who landed on a supposedly vacant planet where his people were intending to settle, refugees hiding out from their mortal enemies. Somehow their enemies already knew their destination, however, and managed to destroy all the advance ships and everyone on them save Draycos. Draycos has a few months to figure out what happened and from where, exactly, the threat lies, so that he can return to the main emigration ships of his people and re-route them somewhere safe, and Jack has undertaken to help him.
It turns out, however, that Draycos is at least as helpful to Jack as Jack is to Draycos, given his superb warrior skills. The two of them make a good team—the boy with lots of undercover experience to get them where they want to go with no one the wiser, and the dragon, honorable and principled, who can protect them along the way.
I finished book #1 and proceeded on to the second, Dragon and Soldier, and I plan to keep going with the rest of the series. So far, book #2 is as imaginative and delightful as was the first, my sole complaint being that each book ends rather abruptly so that you feel an immediate need to access the next volume, which is actually a decided advantage when it comes to luring the reluctant reader to keep going. I believe that those middle-schoolers (and anyone who loves science fiction and/or dragons) who discover these books will do just that.